Shutdown-related shortage of air traffic controllers keeps flights grounded

January 26, 2019
A shortage of air traffic controllers, who called out after weeks of working without pay during the government shutdown, grounded flights up and down the East Coast.

Up and down the East Coast on Friday, planes sat on the tarmac and travelers waited while a shortage of air traffic controllers kept flights from landing at major airports in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

At Raleigh-Durham International Airport, WRAL’s Erin Simanskis waited about two hours for takeoff of a flight headed to LaGuardia.

“I’ve been sitting on a full, regional American Airlines flight, 44 people grumbling, making phone calls, texting family and friends trying to figure out alternate arrangements,” Simanskis said.

Nicholas Stott, local president at Raleigh-Durham International Airport of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the delays were caused by a shortage of personnel in the control tower.

“The delays are due to staffing,” he said, pointing to the ongoing federal shutdown and air traffic controllers working without pay.

“Controllers are distracted, demoralized and can only be expected to hold on without any support of any kind for so long,” Stott said.

On Simanskis’s flight, the pilot announced, “LaGuardia is now on full ground-stop due to air traffic controllers.”

“I’m assuming some of these controllers just had enough and they called out sick,” the pilot said.

The FAA reported that flights into LaGuardia were delayed by an average of an hour and 26 minutes on Friday morning “due to staffing.”

Donna Sotomayor, who was leaving RDU for New York with her daughter Isabelle, overheard other passengers making a political connection.

“You could hear people talking on the plane, and they’re like, ‘We’re emailing our Congressmen, our Senators right now,’” she said.

Gary Sergio, who was traveling from his home in Moore County, sympathized with the federal workers and blamed politics.

“I think our government needs to pull together and get these people, who are hard-working like all of us, the money that they’re due,” he said.

Kristin Dusen, who arrived at RDU from New York, said she had already gotten a response.

“The good news is my senator (Chuck Schumer, D-NY) has already emailed me back,” she said. “That’s what I was most impressed with.”

Dusen, who said she sells insurance, was prompted by the inconvenience to think harder about her fellow man.

“Maybe a month ago I should have actually stood up and done something,” she said.

“I think our politicians need to wake up,” she added. “What is going on really needs to be an end put to, and the only way that that can happen is by people using their voices and speaking to their Congresspeople.”

On Wednesday, Paul Rinaldi, the president of the Air Traffic Controllers Association, told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “Cuomo Prime Time” that air traffic workers are making “routine mistakes” due to high levels of stress caused by the shutdown.

“The biggest toll I have right now is the human toll, the fatigue in my work environment right now where I’m seeing routine mistakes because they’re thinking about which credit cards can I consolidate up for zero interest,” Rinaldi said.

Beth Sanford, who arrived at RDU from Columbus, Ohio, packed her patience.

“This is all part of what we have to deal with today, and we’re pretty fortunate to be in the system that we’re in, so a little inconvenience isn’t such a big deal,” she said.

An RDU spokesman said most operations from the airport were “regular.”

“Some flights may be experiencing delays or cancellations associated with a ground stop at LaGuardia Airport in New York. Travelers should check with their airline for flight status prior to coming to the airport,” said Jake Potter, director of internal communications for the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority.

The partial shutdown of the federal government was in its 35th day Friday, and about 800,000 workers faced a second pay period without a check, More than half of those people are considered critical, though, and have been asked to continue their work without pay, causing strain across the air travel system. For more than a month, thousands of transportation security officers and air traffic controllers have been working without pay.

Vorcelia Oliphant, who flew into RDU Friday with her husband for a visit, could sympathize.

“I don’t think holding the federal workers hostages with their paychecks is fair,” she said. “It should be something that every American citizen is concerned about.”

Staffing among air traffic controllers, who are responsible for keeping planes from colliding, was already an issue even before the shutdown, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the controllers’ union.

The number of certified controllers is at a 30-year low, the union said, and staffing at the centralized radar facility for the airports that serve New York City, which is known as a Tracon, has only about 130 controllers, far short of its full complement of 228.

Update hourly